One Year Ago, the Ansari X Prize Turned 10 It Was an Uncomfortable Birthday
By Douglas Messier Managing Editor
The planes kept coming and coming. One after another, they swooped out of a blue desert sky and touched down on the runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port. By mid-morning there were at least a dozen private jets stretched along the flight line running east from the Voyager restaurant toward the control tower. And even more were on their way.
And to what did Mojave owe this ostentatious display of wealth by the 1 percenters? They had come to the sun-splashed spaceport last Oct. 4 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Ansari X Prize. A decade earlier, Burt Rutan and his Paul Allen-funded team had won $10 million for sending the first privately-built manned vehicle into space twice within a two-week period.
So, just how powerless are future millionauts and their heirs in suing companies for injuries and deaths sustained during suborbital joyrides to the final frontier? Nobody is quite sure yet.
Thus far, the FAA has put forth an informed consent regime in which passengers must acknowledge they are undertaking a risky activity. At least six U.S. states have passed informed consent laws that provide space companies with various levels of protection from lawsuits filed over accidents, injuries and deaths during spaceflight operations.
Last week, State Sen. Steve Knight introduced measures that would amend California’s spaceflight informed consent law to include vehicle manufacturers, suppliers and service providers, and also exempt aerospace products used in manufacturing and research and development (R&D) from sales and use taxes.
These measures are in addition to a separate bill that Knight introduced in December that would provide sales and use tax exemptions on equipment and materials used for the renovation, reconstruction and rehabilitation of commercial space launch sites.
California legislators have significantly watered down a proposed law that would have held human spacecraft operators, manufacturers and suppliers not liable for injuries or deaths sustained by passengers if the participant signed an informed consent agreement acknowledging the inherent danger of their flights.
Under amendments to the bill, companies would have “limited civil liability” even if they were not grossly negligent or intentionally caused injuries. Legislators have also removed vehicle manufacturers and component suppliers from coverage under the measure.
Regulations for informing space tourists about the risks they face on suborbital flights need to be clarified, according to a report presented to the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Council.
The review, done by A-P-T Research, Inc., notes that there is uncertainty over whether waivers signed by tourists would cover the inherent risks of space tourism and protect space tourism companies from being sued for negligence.